A good rule of thumb when spending the day in unfamiliar territory is to show up early and eat a good breakfast. When I arrived at the Wat Thai temple in North Hollywood I had followed only one of those rules; It was a few minutes before 10am and the vendors had just started to unload their wares. Needless to say, I was incredibly hungry. It was Songkran, celebrated in Thailand as the first day of the new year. The event was an eclectic mix of past and present: bald, orange-robed Buddhist monks roamed the grounds, vendors bowing politely as they passed; children ran through the temple gardens brandishing super soakers (Songkran is also know as the Festival of Water) while a youthful rock band on the main stage alternated between traditional Thai songs and those of Justin Bieber or Taylor Swift.
The reason I was here, along with many others, was for the food. For an outsider like myself, food is one of the most welcoming windows into an unknown culture. For those Thai by heritage, food can undoubtedly serve as a lasting link to memories and traditions of the past. Even here in North Hollywood, those traditions still run deep. Nowhere is that more present than in the hawker stalls, where the variety and quality of the Thai food served is certainly something to behold.
Mango Sticky Rice
Comfort food at it’s best. The “mango ladies”, as they’re known, peel and slice to order, deftly whipping their paring knives across the fruit’s flesh, producing thick, velvety slices of mango the color of saffron. The fruit is then layered over globs of short-grain sticky rice stewed with coconut milk, sugar and salt. Aside from an additional cup of thickened coconut milk added on, the plate arrives painstakingly unremarkable in appearance. The skill here, like many Thai desserts, is in the harmony between opposing textures and tastes, even when those are as simple as those between fruit and rice. The result, if you couldn’t guess by the confident grins of the Thai grandmothers watching you eat, is awe-inspiring.
Satay and Thai Sausage
Would this really be a true festival without the presence of grilled meats? These skewers of smoky grilled chicken, beef and pork were a blessing, if not only for their juiciness, but for the immediate and universal satisfaction of being handed a stick of meat and tearing off a piece. The taste of Thai sausages (Sai Rok), on the other hand, might prove more divisive. A bite into the casing releases the sour tang of lime and raw garlic, which coupled with the dripping fattiness of ground pork, makes for a pungent and unique treat.
The soup vendors here operate on what seems to be a menu of endless combinations. Choose between wide, chewy egg noodles or thin, delicate stands of glass noodle. Add in braised slices of fatty duck, crispy shavings of pork, or tender meatballs that resemble pale grey marbles. A large stockpot in the back holds a rich brown broth that is sour, sweet and thickened with pork blood. Even though your bowl arrives already topped with springs of cilantro, bean sprouts and a soy sauce egg, a tray of chili peppers, limes and sugar invites you to add more. Many here order the ubiquitous Thai Boat Noodle, a spicy combination of the different meats served here. Another standout is the shockingly pink-colored Yen Ta Fo, a tangy bowl of seafood soup flavored with vinegar and red chili paste, amongst other ingredients. The bowls of soup pack powerful flavors, and even if they’re are more polished versions to be found in LA, the vendors here pull no punches for the novice palate.
Green Papaya Salad
The funky smell of fish sauce hangs in the air. The pounding thud of mortar and pestle keeps a steady rhythm. A dozen different colored buckets line the counter. The team of ladies underneath these tents pride themselves on one thing in particular, green papaya salad, and what’s churned out is undoubtedly some of the best in Los Angeles. It is a medley of raw, unabashed flavors: julienned unriped papaya, tomato, cilantro, fish sauce, finely diced raw crab, dried shrimp, tamarind, lime, garlic, chili and roasted peanuts. The salad is mixed in front you, and at some point the woman will stop, look up from under her wide-brimmed sun visor, and ask “how hot?”. Heaven help you if, in some act of foodie hubris, you ask for “spicy”. It seems impossible that a chilled salad should be able to cause so many beads of sweat. Luckily, soothing glasses of Thai iced tea are ladled out nearby for only a dollar. The crowd here, who often order three or four plates at a time, seem more like rock groupies than customers (an apt comparison for dish that tastes like Henry Rollins is playing a show in your mouth). After finishing a searing plateful of my own, I’d say the reputation is well deserved.
By noon I was stuffed, not to mention I had spent my entire stash of meal tickets (the passing of money is forbidden on temple grounds, so cash is exchanged for tickets at the front gate). It’s worth mentioning that there are some food vendors available every weekend at Wat Thai, but Songrkan is the holy grail for Thai food lovers due to it’s massive influx of stalls. While the gorgeous architecture and history of the temple is a sight to behold on it’s own, during the festival the courtyard springs to life with the vibrancy unlike anything else. I’m already looking forward to next year.
Songkran Festival: April 9-10th
Wat Thai Temple
8225 Coldwater Canyon Ave.
North Hollywood, CA